Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The First Chapter of OATH OF SERVICE

So, folks -- I've been writing frantically, getting LOVE BITES ready to turn in. I just finished the book yesterday, so today I'm nursing a writing hangover and getting ready to do a radio program called ON POINT on NPR at 11 a.m. Eastern.
 It's a call in show, so I hope some of you will call in and ask questions that make me NOT sound like a Southern fried bimbo. Anyway, here's the first chapter of OATH.... 

The bald leather-clad man hauled the plump, pretty blonde across his lap and flipped up her short PVC skirt to reveal lacy stockings, a garter belt, and no panties at all. Growling, he gave her a dozen ruthless swats that made her yelp and buck. When he finished, the blonde collapsed over his thighs with a moaning sigh that sounded far more like pleasure than pain.
A flare of longing flashed through Morgana le Fay. She looked hastily away from the sated sub. It was far too easy to imagine herself draped across a man’s lap. Not the bald dominant’s, but his.
Keep your mind on the job, witch, she told herself firmly, forcing her thoughts away from the knight who’d been an obsession for too long. Somebody’s murdering these people, and using magic to do it. You don’t have time for kinky fantasies if you want to stop the killer.
And it would be far too easy to get distracted in a place like Club Penitent, which seemed designed to rouse the forbidden needs she fought so desperately to ignore.
Especially tonight, on a day her ghosts paced and moaned, tormenting her until she had no business going out on any mission at all.
The only thing more unacceptable was to allow her team to go into battle without her. No other witch could protect them as well as she could, because no other witch had her raw power.
Just keep your mind on the job, Morgana. Stop the bastard. Concentrate on that. Forget everything else. Ignore everything else. All the ghosts. All the need. None of it matters but the team and the killer’s victims.
She swept another glance over her surroundings. Club Penitent was one of New York's most exclusive nightclubs, whether devoted to Bondage, Domination and Sadomasochism—BDSM—or to more vanilla activities. The membership leaned toward upwardly mobile, if kinky, professionals: doctors, lawyers, bankers, stockbrokers, even a celebrity or two.
The place accordingly had an air of expensive seduction, between the long, massive bar and the surrounding tables and chairs, all of them dark oak carved with gothic crosses to go with the club’s Inquisition theme. The bar area was surrounded by a ring of smaller "dungeon" rooms equipped with St. Andrews crosses, spanking benches, and other assorted gear designed for tying people up and doing painfully erotic things to them. The overall result was an air of sensual menace, rather as if Torquemada had decided to run a bordello between torturing alleged witches.
Gregorian chants filled the air with deep masculine voices instead of the usual deafening rock du jour of other clubs. Given Morgana's sensitive Maja ears, she approved, though the reminder of the Church’s witch-torturing history made her twitch.
She'd come entirely too close to getting hanged by a fanatical priest once. It hadn't been erotic at all.
Though if Percival was doing the torturing...Stop that.
Involuntarily, her gaze flashed across the bar to the rear booth where her team sat. The three men looked ready for battle at a moment’s notice, between their holstered 9mm SIGs and the long swords they wore diagonally across their backs. Illegal weapons, of course, but also invisible to mortal eyes, thanks to the spells Morgana had cast.
While the club’s Masters wore everything from monk’s robes to biker leathers, her teammates needed no special regalia to look like dominants. Instead they’d chosen clothing that would allow them to blend without hampering their ability to fight: leather vests over bare chests, faded jeans and tooled leather boots, perfectly broken in.
Looking at them lounging in their booth like a trio of lions on the veldt, Morgana couldn’t deny their effect on her. But then, if a woman didn't feel a tingle at the sight of Percival, Cador and Marrok looking ready to break all Ten Commandments, she needed to check her pulse.
Someone who didn't know them would probably register Marrok first. He appeared the most menacing of the three, being six-five and brawny as a bull, with a lantern jaw, deep-set brown eyes, and a lazily sensual mouth. His crooked nose had been repeatedly broken during childhood by his abusive prick of a father. Despite the air of brutishness, he was a laughing, genial soul who often played peacemaker between his hot-tempered teammates.
Which made what happened if you managed to truly anger him all the more shocking. His berserker rages could make even Arthur Pendragon step softly. He’d been known to cut through enemy forces like a plow through a wheat field, leaving broken bodies and barren earth in his wake.
Then there was Cador. At six feet, he was shorter than the others, but that only made him look more like a muscular male wall. Which was something of a natural result given that all three spent hours a day swinging battle-axes and broad swords.
In contrast to Marrok’s short dark hair, Cador wore his long, braided tightly for combat. At the moment, though, it tumbled past his shoulders in a curling mane. The eye-catching effect was intensified by its color, a rich, dark auburn, glossy as a fox’s pelt.
His features looked as if God had calculated every angle for maximum impact on anyone with estrogen in her veins. Thick auburn brows dipped over laughing eyes the striking turquoise blue of the Caribbean. His nose was straight and knife-blade narrow, while his wide, mobile mouth was prone toward deceptively charming smiles.
Deceptive, because Cador had a sadistic streak as broad as the Thames. He was not the kind of man you wanted to meet in combat, particularly if you'd done something to piss him off. He and Morgana often locked horns; he had a cutting, cynical sense of humor she found irritating. For his part, he called Morgana arrogant, though she preferred to think of it as natural self-confidence.
All right, she supposed she was a little arrogant.
Last—but hardly least, since he was the trio's leader—there was Percival. At six-three, he was a bit leaner than the others, with all the muscular power, explosive speed and hypnotic grace of a puma. His broad-shouldered, elegant body was marked here and there by scars from spears, arrows and swords—reminders of his mortal life fighting Arthur Pendragon’s wars.
As if to emphasize all that stark masculinity, Percival had the kind of face that called ancient gladiators to mind: angular, square-jawed, with a flaring swoop of a nose that just missed being too long, and a pugnacious cleft chin. The overall effect was softened by a wide, lush mouth that Morgana had hungered to kiss for a very long time. His deep-set gray eyes were cool and watchful, heated by flashes of erotic cruelty she wished she didn’t find so intriguing. One of his blond brows was bisected by a thin scar, a reminder of a wound that had almost cost him his right eye. He wore his thick, honey-gold hair just barely long enough to curl. Morgana longed to run her fingers through it, but it wasn’t a good idea to give into temptation where Percival was concerned. He’d take ruthless advantage of any weakness she handed him.
Percival wanted her. Had wanted her for years—centuries—though she doubted the desire he felt was anything more than physical. If she wasn’t damned careful, Morgana knew she’d end up the latest in his parade of hapless submissives. The really galling thing was that she’d probably love every minute of her subjugation—until he moved on to the next sub, leaving her heart in ruins. Dangerous ruins.
The kind with nuclear land mines.
Yet sometimes when she gazed into those demanding gray eyes, Morgana wanted to confess all the secrets she’d kept so long. She knew better, though. She didn’t dare let Percival discover how close she skated to the edge—or how far she had to fall.
She’d been skating along that edge for fifteen hundred years, since becoming one of the immortals tasked with protecting mankind. That was when the wizard Merlin and his enchantress lover Nimue had appeared at King Arthur’s Camelot court, where Morgana had been a Druid healer.
Merlin had told the king those who drank from his enchanted Grail would gain immortality and vast power—if they could pass the couple’s tests. For the knights, that meant duels to prove their strength and courage.
For Camelot’s ladies, the challenge was mental rather than physical. Nimue’s psychic spells forced each woman to confront her worst fears, while giving her the illusion of vast magical powers. The enchantress then evaluated her response to determine whether she could be trusted with real magic.
But when it was Morgana’s turn, even Nimue was astonished at the results…
Morgana balanced on a stool on the tips of her toes, her rope-burned, bloodless wrists bound in front of her, dark spots dancing before her eyes. She couldn’t draw breath for the pressure of the noose around her neck, its taut rope looped over the hook in the cottage’s ceiling.
A little boy screamed, his voice ringing high with terror. Morgana’s blood chilled as a man in a priest’s robes dragged the struggling dark-haired child into the room. “Mamma!” the boy shrieked. “Mamma, help me!”
“I can give you the power to save your son—and yourself,” a bodiless voice whispered in her mind. “Will you accept?”
Desperately fighting to suck in a breath past the strangling noose, Morgana wheezed, “Yes. Horned God, yes!”
Energy poured into her, a flaming wave of it that seared its way up her spine. Magic such as she’d never known, effortless and blazing. It made the power she was used to wielding feel like a feeble trickle.
She sent that blaze shooting down to her bound wrists and up to the noose around her neck. When her new power hit the loops of rope, it burned them instantly to floating flecks of ash. Sucking down a relieved whoop of air, Morgana fell off her tiptoes, rocking back down onto her heels so suddenly she almost toppled off the stool.
As the sensation of suffocation lifted, she looked down at the priest who’d just forced her shrieking son to the floor. Rage flooded her with the blind need to kill. Her hands began to burn, casting a furious yellow light over the dark, dirty little cottage with its stink of piss and terror.
The priest stared up at her, his eyes widening at the sight of her blazing hands.
She stepped off the stool. Bennett leaped to his feet and backed away, his watery blue eyes darting beneath his balding pate, his thin lips peeled back from yellowed, crooked teeth. Morgana’s hands shot out, seized the sides of his face and jerked him close. The old man jerked against her grip, fighting like a rabid fox in a wolf trap.
“Enough!” she snapped. “Be still!” Her will blasted him, paralyzing him where he stood and locking his terrorized mind in winter ice. The need to kill lashed within her like a flaming snake. He deserved it for what he’d done to her, to Mordred.
And yet… killing left a stain on the soul. He’d taught her that. Better to leave the bastard alive — but make damned sure he never did to anyone else what he’d done to them.
But more, he needed to suffer for his crimes, share the pain and terror of his victims, feel the weight of his betrayal of his God and his flock.
Morgana’s will slashed Bennett like a steel-tipped flail, forcing him to experience the full horror of his sins. By the time she was done with him, she knew he’d never harm another innocent as long as he drew breath.
“You are not like the others.”
Morgana opened her eyes to find the girl studying her, a frown on her too-young face. Nimue looked fifteen at most—a delicate nymph with waist-length blonde hair and eyes as black as a night sky. Eyes too ancient and wise to belong to any mortal, much less a fifteen-year-old child.
“You don’t seem to have the magical limitations the others do,” Nimue told her thoughtfully. “That could be dangerous; the human mind is not equipped to deal with power without limit. And yet...” Her gaze flicked as if studying something in the distance, and she paused, appeared to debate herself.
At last the enchantress shrugged. “But your power is needed, despite the risk. You will simply have to take care.”
The girl gestured, and the Grail appeared, a delicate filigreed silver cup. The potion it held glowed and bubbled gently, misted by shimmering tendrils of blue smoke. “Will you drink from the Grail and become an immortal witch? Will you use your skills to safeguard humanity, even from itself?”
“Yes,” Morgana said.
Accepting the cup, she swallowed liquid fire.
It had been fifteen centuries since that night. Morgana had never told anyone of the potential she had for power greater than what any other witch could claim.
And yet… when Percival looked at her in that way he sometimes had, her heart insisted, You could give him control. You could trust him. He would never betray you.
No, her fear hissed. Stop it, Morgana. You can’t take the chance.
Not with her demons.
A Celtic-pale redhead strutted past, clamps swinging from her generous breasts. They looked damned painful, judging by the swollen red nipples they gripped. Heat rushed into Percival's groin at the thought of capturing another woman's nipples in such clamps...
“God, I’d love to put a pair of those on Morgana,” Marrok murmured, saying exactly what Percival was thinking.
Snorting, Cador took a swig of his Corona. "She’d geld you with a fireball.”
“Yeah, but it'd be worth it.”
As the clamped girl jiggled past Morgana, the witch’s eyes slid to her bare breasts, then directly to Percival's face. Her spring-green eyes darkened with need. His cock hardened to its full length in a searing liquid rush.
In the middle of a fucking mission to keep a werewolf from eating more women.
And it hadn’t even been the first time tonight. Something about this club was definitely shooting Morgana’s concentration all to hell. Even worse, the effect was contagious. He and his knights seemed to be suffering too.
Which wasn’t unusual. During the years they’d worked together, Morgana had been equal parts temptation and frustrating pain in the arse.
True, most of the time she was an invaluable addition on any mission. Percival, Marrok and Cador had worked with a number of witches over the centuries, but Morgana was the most powerful of them all.
She was also as fearless as any male warrior, and damned near as good with a sword as one of the Knights of the Round Table.
What’s more, Morgana never admitted defeat. She’d do whatever it took to succeed, refusing to yield to physical or mental exhaustion. She pushed herself so hard that she'd won the respect of all three knights, even Cador, who personally disliked her. Percival had seen her keep casting spells to defend the team when she was so badly wounded, he was surprised she was even conscious. Again and again, she'd proven she was willing to die for them—as they, in turn, would die for her.
Which didn’t mean she couldn't royally piss them all off.
For one thing, Morgana only went on the most tricky and dangerous missions, and insisted on leading most of the ones she went on. She steadfastly refused to bow to any authority but her own. If Percival tried to assume control, usually because things had gone to hell, her reaction was often bitchy in the extreme.
That wouldn’t drive him half as mad as it did, except his dominant instincts insisted she was hiding a submissive streak. At times she seemed to be deliberately bratting—the BDSM term when a submissive tried to earn a punishment from her dominant by acting out like a bratty child.
Except in Morgana’s case, it was worse than obnoxious behavior, because she sometimes gave him and his team painful magical jolts.
The powers given to witches and vampires complimented each other; vampires couldn’t work magic beyond self-healing and shape-shifting, while Majae weren’t as physically powerful as their counterparts. That meant a vampire couldn’t overpower a witch’s spells, just as she couldn’t overpower his strength.
A Maja could, however, use her abilities to give a vampire a nasty jolt if he forgot himself and tried to take her blood by force. Most Majae were careful not to abuse that power, but Morgana never seemed to hesitate. Percival had sworn he’d one day give her bare arse a swat for every zap she’d dealt him and his team.
A woman cried out from one of Club Penitent’s dungeon rooms, her voice spiraling high with a blend of arousal, pain and pleasure. Perhaps from the application of nipple clamps or a riding crop or a demanding kiss.
For the second time in less than a minute, Morgana’s gaze slid back to the three knights.
Percival’s temper began to steam, burning all the hotter because he was as angry at himself as he was at her.
Passing his thumb over the heavy gold enchanted ring on his right hand, he activated the spell that allowed them to communicate during missions. “Get your head out of your cunt and on the fucking job, Morgana. If one of these women dies because of you, I swear to Merlin I will bend you over the Round Table and flog you with a buggy whip!”
“You forget yourself, Lord Percival,” she replied in that cool contralto voice of hers. “I lead this mission.”
“Then lead it,” Percival snarled, “and quit turning it into fucking amateur hour.”
A white-hot stiletto of agony stabbed between his eyes, so savagely intense it almost tore a gasp of pain from his mouth. He bit it back.
“Goddammit Morgana!” Cador growled in the link, “’Rok and I didn’t do anything. Why hit us?” Morgana’s spell must’ve caught the pair as it traveled through their mission rings. Morgana made no reply; she'd evidently closed communications.
“Sorry,” Percival growled.
Cador grunted and took another deep swallow of his beer, auburn brows dipping in a frown. “I don’t like the way this is going. I’ve never seen Morgana so far off her game.” He glowered. “I’m beginning to wonder if we should work with her again. We may have reached the point of diminishing returns.”
“Bullshit.” Marrok glowered at him. “Name one witch with as much raw power as Morgana le Fay. I’ll admit she can be a pain in the arse…”
Cador smirked. “Sometimes literally.”
“…But we’ve never failed to achieve a mission objective when we worked with Morgana. That’s not always a given when we work with other witches.”
“You know, it doesn’t have to be just one Maja," Cador pointed out. "Two or even three…”
“Might be equivalent to Morgana’s power, but they wouldn’t her experience or skill in magical combat strategy." Percival rattled the ice in his glass impatiently. "Nobody is as good in a magical fight as Morg. Except maybe Kel, and he’s a dragon.”
Cador pursed his lips, considering. "Gwen's pretty damn good.”
“True, but Arthur is hardly going to let us have Gwen, is he?” Marrok leaned in, his jaw taking on a familiar stubborn jut.
As the two knights began arguing about which Maja would make a better addition to their partnership, Percival’s gaze drifted back to Morgana. He'd known the witch fifteen centuries now, years of desperate combat, furious arguments, and steely friendship. She’d been driving him insane for most of that time.
Centuries ago, the four of them had been among the first twenty-four people to drink from Merlin’s Grail. The potion it contained had magically transformed them all. The twelve Knights of the Round Table had become Magi—vampires, in other words. The twelve ladies of Camelot's court, including Morgana and Queen Guinevere, became witches, or Majae.
In the centuries since, those twenty-four had become ten thousand, as their descendants joined them in the battle to protect humanity against its own self-destructive impulses. Collectively they were called the Magekind, sworn to use their impressive abilities to hunt those like the magical killer who was their target tonight.
Today they all lived in Avalon, an enchanted city of immortals located in the Mageverse, a parallel universe where magic was a universal force like gravity or electromagnetism. Which was why that universe’s version of Earth was inhabited by everything from fairies to dragons.
This Earth, meanwhile, was home to werewolves like the one they were hunting today.
Though most werewolves were basically decent, this one was a thoroughly nasty bastard. Over the past two months, seventeen women had vanished from nightclubs around the country, only to be found the next day as piles of gnawed bone. He'd evidently eaten them.
The mortal authorities had yet to realize what was actually going on. Because the victims’ bodies had been reduced to skeletal remains so quickly, law enforcement had assumed they'd been dead much longer than they actually had been. This made identification basically impossible. Police needed some idea who a victim might be in order to obtain dental records to compare skulls to, and they’d excluded anyone who’d been missing less than a month.
Unlike the police, however, Percival and his team had Morgana. Last night the witch had a vision that some kind of magical predator was abducting, murdering, and eating women. Women who’d been taken from nightclubs. Merlin's Grimoire—an enchanted talking book—had produced articles from newspapers around the country dealing with skeletal remains said to be the victims of animal attacks. When Morgana described an image from her vision­—a hand holding a whip outlined in red neon—Grim had identified it as the logo for Club Penitent.
Which explained why the most powerful witch on the planet was dressed in red corset, matching thong, lacy stockings, and high heels. The costume displayed every gorgeous inch of her elegant body, long, toned legs, and full breasts—and made Percival's dick want to sit up and beg.
She also looked like just the sort of submissive the killer liked to hunt. Morgana played bait the way she did everything else: to the hilt, prancing around on those crimson stilettos, drawing the eyes of every straight man in the place, whether dominant or sub.
Percival couldn’t blame them for drooling. The witch had a long-boned, elegant face with a narrow nose, full lips, and delicately chiseled cheekbones. Her large eyes were a green so vivid, they reminded him of spring leaves, and her black hair fell in a silken waterfall of ebony curls to the small of her back.
All in all, an irresistible target for the killer.
Which was why the three knights were undercover as sexual dominants. If the killer was a werewolf, as Morgana believed, she’d need the backup. Werewolves were not only eight feet of fangs, fur and claws, they were invulnerable to magical attacks. That would leave her with no way of defending herself; she'd be almost as helpless as the mortal victims had been.
True, Morgana was stronger than human, not to mention good with a sword—given fifteen hundred years of experience, she should be—but that might not be enough to let her fight off a monster. Percival, Marrok and Cador, with their vampire strength, would more than balance the scales. Considering what the killer had done to those seventeen women, the fuzzy fuck deserved everything they could dish out.
The bastard couldn't even claim to be a victim of animal instinct. Unlike the movie version, real werewolves were no more driven to murder than real vampires. This prick was just a serial killer, fanged and furry or not.
“Morg's got another nibble,” Marrok said.
Percival tensed as the strange dominant approached Morgana. He was a handsome man, tall and blond, with blue eyes so piercing the color was evident all the way across the room. Dressed in black jeans and a navy blue polo shirt, he looked broad shouldered and muscular as he loomed over the witch, though she was not a short woman. Percival figured he must be six-one or six-two. Just her type; Morg liked them tall. He leaned down to speak to her, his expression, hooded, sensual.
Under the table, Percival’s hands curled into fists.
Morgana looked up at the man, sweeping an assessing look from feet to face. She said something and turned away, her body language dismissive.
The big man froze, going expressionless. Then he nodded stiffly and walked off.
“Aaaaand another one goes down in a rain of flaming wreckage.” Cador flashed a cynical grin and lifted his beer in a mock toast. “Morgana le Fay—body of a Victoria’s Secret model, personality of a rabid polar bear.”
The witch glanced toward their table, then quickly away again. Her cheeks darkened.
Percival knew why, too. Normally Morgana could watch an orgy without turning a hair, but in a place like this, given the submissive streak he suspected? He’d be willing to bet if he came up behind her, stroked a hand down the delicate curve of her back, put his lips to her nape and caressed her with his fangs…she’d cream that pretty thong. Which explained why her cheeks had been going cherry red all night.
The woman would be the death of him yet.
Cador straightened, eyes narrowing as Morgana glanced hastily away. “Did she just blush?”
“Appeared that way to me,” Marrok drawled.
Both men turned and looked at Percival, who glowered back. “What?”
Cador put down his beer bottle with a thump. “You know what. Percival, you need to do something about this thing you’ve got going with her.”
“There is no ‘thing.’” Percival gritted his teeth so hard, they creaked.
“Don’t play stupid,” Cador snapped. “You can’t pull it off.”
Marrok leaned forward and directed a cool, level gaze his way. “She wants you, Percival. She’s wanted you almost as long as you’ve wanted her. And it’s time you quit fucking around and claim her for the sake of our collective sanity.”
“Morgana doesn’t want me—she wants a bloody giant lizard.” Percival curled a lip and sipped his drink, only to grimace as he realized it was nothing but half-melted ice. He gestured their waitress over, wishing he could order something with a bit more kick; by law, New York BDSM clubs could only serve soft drinks. “I’m afraid I don’t measure up.”
“Soren’s not her lover.” Cador sprawled back in the booth, eying him. “Soren’s just her scaly, shape-shifting fuck buddy, and well you know it.” He was also Dragonkind’s ambassador to Avalon. The pair had been on-again, off-again lovers for the better part of a decade.
Yet Percival would bet his enchanted sword she’d never submitted to her dragon lover. Or, for that matter, any of the others she’d dallied with, even knights like Galahad. Certainly not the way she’d always seemed to tremble on the edge of yielding to Percival.
One day, he swore, he’d push her right over—and catch her when she fell.